Sunday, November 27, 2005

ratiug ria

I have never taken anything in a book to heart that was not somehow confirmed in my ordinary experience -- and did not, to some extent, reform and redeem that experience. Nor have I had any experience of high art that was not somehow confirmed in my experience of ordinary culture -- and did not, to some extent, reform and redeem that.
When I was a kid, books and paintings and music were all around me, all the time, but never in the guise of culture....

The whole cultural enterprise, when I was growing up, was at once intimate and a little mysterious. It took place at home, in other people's homes, and in little stores. Everywhere my family went to live, there were bookstores and record shops, art galleries and jazz clubs, where otherwise normal people did all these cool things. And nobody knew anything about it. My teachers didn't know about it. The newspapers, my scoutmasters, the television, my friends, nobody knew about it.

I chose to dwell in that underground empire for the first forty-seven years of my life -- in record stores, honky tonks, art bars, hot-rod shops, recording studios, commercial art galleries, city rooms, jazz clubs, cocktail lounges, surf shops, bookstores, rock-and-roll bars, editorial offices, discos, and song factories. I lived the freelance life, in other words, until 1987 when, faced with the unavailability of health insurance, I began to take teaching gigs in universities. There I discovered that, according to the masters of my new universe, all the cruelties and inequities of this civilization derived from the greed and philistinism of shopkeepers, the people who ran these little stores, who bought things and sold them, as I had done.

I found this amazing, because the problem for me had never been who sold the dumb object, or bought it, but how you acquired the privilege of talking about it -- how you found people with whom you could talk about it. I wondered what my new masters would have thought of Sumpter Bruton, a tasty jazz drummer by night and shopkeeper by day, who ran the little record store where I learned about everything from bel canto to Blind Lemon to Erik Satie, who loved every kind of noise that human beings made -- with the possible exception of the noises made by Neil Diamond. And what would they have thought of Harold Garner and David Smith, whose bookstore was their baby and the site upon which I discovered Twentysix Gasoline Stations and Logique du Sens, who would order weird books because they thought I might be interested in them, and never tell me if they weren't returnable? The books I didn't buy would just lie around, gathering dust, until I figured that out. And then I would buy them for cost, and cheap at the price.

The best thing about little stores was that if you were a nobody like me, and didn't know anything, you could go into one of them and find things out. People would talk to you, not because you were going to buy something, but because they loved the stuff they had to sell. The guy in the Billabong Surf Shop, I can assure you, wants to talk about his boards. Even if you want to buy one, right now, he still wants to talk about them, will talk you out into the street, you with the board under your arm, if he is a true child of the high water.

And I love that kind of talk, have lived on it and lived by it, writing that kind of talk for magazines. To me, it has always been the heart of mystery, the heart of the heart: the way people talk about loving things, which things, and why. Thus it was, after two years on university campuses without hearing anything approximating this kind of talk, it finally dawned on me that in this place that we had set aside to nurture culture and study its workings, culture didn't work. Because in universities, books and paintings and music were not ``cool stuff.'' In ordinary society, they were the occasions for gossip -- for opinions, where there is no truth. In school, they were the occasion for mastery where there is no truth -- an even more dangerous proposition -- although my colleagues, being masters, had no choice but to behave masterfully. Exempted by their status from the whims of affection and the commerce of opinion, professors could only mark territory from the podium, with footnotes, and speak in the language of authority about things which they did not love.